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Philosophy and the Catholic Church: A 2,000-year-old marriage


Faith and reason are a happy couple in the Church’s intellectual life.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the human person, something that sets us apart from animals, is the ability to reason, and ultimately, to question the meaning of life. This innate human ability has led to countless philosophical schools over the centuries, where men and women wrestle with the fundamental questions of existence.

Over time various teachers and thinkers developed a specific discipline called “philosophy” (Greek for “love of wisdom) where these ideas and thoughts were more closely examined.

The Catholic Church has always willingly embraced the truth found in philosophy, recognizing how God has placed this capacity within us.

Philosophy continues to play an essential role in the Catholic Church’s intellectual life. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, explains how “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

John Paul II was himself a philosopher, and goes on to explain the beauty found in philosophy.

[Philosophy] is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of the noblest of human tasks. According to its Greek etymology, the term philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Born and nurtured when the human being first asked questions about the reason for things and their purpose, philosophy shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself. It is an innate property of human reason to ask why things are as they are, even though the answers which gradually emerge are set within a horizon which reveals how the different human cultures are complementary.

Philosophy is a great aid to our human existence and the thirst for truth should be nurtured within each individual person. This desire is something common to all humanity and transcends culture and language. Philosophy can help us better understand ourselves, who we are, and our place in the world.

However, the Church recognizes that philosophy cannot replace faith. John Paul II notes that while philosophy “has succeeded in coming closer to the reality of human life and its forms of expression, it has also tended to pursue issues—existential, hermeneutical or linguistic—which ignore the radical question of the truth about personal existence, about being and about God.”

In this way, “Deprived of what Revelation offers, reason has taken side-tracks which expose it to the danger of losing sight of its final goal.”

Philosophy needs to be supported by faith if it is to be truly effective and find answers to the basic questions of life.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Church also urges believers not to hold onto faith to the exclusion of reason. Instead, “The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason ‘mutually support each other’; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding.”

Philosophers are welcome in the Catholic Church and are encouraged to struggle with the hidden desires of the human heart, keeping in mind the Author behind it all.

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